Law school event facilitates discussion of race in college admissions

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Kelly McHale

Students and members of the Vanderbilt Community filled the Renaissance Room of the law school on Monday afternoon to hear from William Consovoy, one of the lawyers who represented Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) in its lawsuit filed against Harvard University. Brian Fitzpatrick, a visiting professor at Harvard Law School, also provided commentary regarding the case.

Consovoy opened by framing the circumstances of the case and underscoring the argument of SFFA that Harvard intentionally discriminated against Asian Americans in their admissions process. He read an excerpt from the Harvard website, which advocated for a process that examines “each applicant as a whole person.” However, Consovoy argued, this is not reflected in the statistics of the racial makeup of the university.

The relative percentages of Asian Americans at Harvard has remained largely static in recent years, Consovoy explained, despite Asian Americans outperforming other racial groups in academics and extracurriculars. He also argued that their theoretical “holistic” approach does not truly reflect each individual entirely; for example, the admissions process does not account for a student’s religion.

Consovoy said that the most subjective part of the university’s admissions criteria is the “personal score,” which is a ranking of character traits such as leadership or likeability. He argued that this part of the process greatly harmed Asian Americans while inflating scores for other racial groups such as African Americans and Hispanics.

Fitzgerald asked Consovoy what the remedy would be if SFFA wins the case with the argument that personal factors, like race, can serve as a mechanism for discrimination that ultimately keep Asian Americans out of the university. Consovoy responded that Fitzgerald had found a question that he could not answer.

Discrimination of Asian American students, Consovoy argued, starts early on in the process with recruitment letters for high schoolers. In certain demographic areas such as rural states, Asian Americans need to score higher on the PSAT than their white counterparts at the same school in order to receive a recruitment letter.

Following Fitzgerald and Consovoy’s discussion of the case, the floor was opened to the audience for questions. These questions further facilitated a dialogue about how to create a more equitable admissions process and what the potential impacts of this case could be. For example, one audience member pointed out that ignoring race is an act of erasure, and another added that using other areas for promoting diversity such as socioeconomic status could discount the role that race plays in this as well.

As the event came to a close, Consovoy emphasized a need for reconciling race in the admissions process and refuting a narrative of pitting marginalized racial groups against one another. The trial arguments have come to a close in the case, and with both sides saying they plan to appeal, it is possible for the case to go to the Supreme Court. The outcome of the case ultimately has significant implications for evaluating admissions processes in higher education at Harvard and beyond.